Skin Cancer

By:    Published: February 5, 2012

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Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), over 2 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year. There are several symptoms and risk factors that everyone should be aware of to make sure that this disease is detected early on.


Skin cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the skin cells. It typically forms on the areas of skin that are exposed to the sun. However, it can also form on places not typically exposed to sunlight, in some cases. When left untreated, skin cancer may spread to vital organs and become fatal.


There are several different types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of skin cancer. In fact, it is also the most common type of all cancers. It originates in the basal cells, which are in the deepest layer of the epidermis.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of skin cancer affects the squamous cells, which make up most of the epidermis.
  • Melanoma: Though it is not as common as some other forms of skin cancer, melanoma is the most deadly. It originates in the melanocytes of the epidermis, which are responsible for producing pigment in the skin.
  • Uncommon skin cancers: Kaposi sarcoma, Merkel cell carcinoma and sebaceous gland carcinoma are three other types of skin cancer which are much less common than the other three types of skin cancer listed above.


The symptoms of skin cancer vary according to what type of skin cancer an individual has. These are the signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Basal cell carcinoma: This cancer manifests itself physically by producing open sores, red patches, shiny bumps, scars or pink growths on the skin. It often appears on the face, ears or scalp.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This cancer manifests itself physically by producing open sores, red patches or warts which may bleed or crust. It often appears on the face, lips, ears or hands.
  • Melanoma: Melanomas often look like moles or develop from existing moles. Signs that a melanoma is forming are changes in color, size or feel of a mole or lesion, particularly when one has irregular borders or spots or speckles of different colors. These can occur anywhere on the body, including under the fingernails or on the soles of the feet.
  • Uncommon skin cancers: Kaposi sarcomas usually look like red or purple patches on the skin. Merkel cell carcinomas appear as firm, shiny nodules, while sebaceous gland carcinomas are usually hard, painless nodules.

Causes And Risk Factors

Skin cancer is caused by mutations in the DNA of skin cells, which causes the affected cells to grow rapidly and form a mass of cancer cells. The type of cell affected – either squamous cells, basal cells or melanocytes – determines the type of skin cancer that develops. UV radiation, which is found in sunlight, is often noted as a cause of skin cancer since it can lead to damage to the DNA of skin cells. However, it is not the sole cause of skin cancer since the disease can also develop in areas not exposed to sunlight. Doctors believe other factors, such as exposure to toxic substances and a weakened immune system, may also be possible causes of skin cancer.

(To learn more about the dangers of overexposure to the sun, read Sunburn Symptoms.)

There are several risk factors which increase a person’s likelihood of developing skin cancer, including:

  • Skin color: People with fair skin are much more likely to get skin cancer because the lack of pigment in their skin provides less protection from UV radiation. Other physical characteristics which signal an increased risk for skin cancer are light-colored eyes, blond or red hair, freckles or the tendency to sunburn easily.
  • Moles: Having a lot of moles or having abnormal moles is an indicator of an increased risk of skin cancer.
  • Location: Living in a sunny or high-altitude climates means that your skin gets more exposure to sunlight, which increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Sunburns: Every time a person gets sunburned, their skin cells are damaged and they increase their risk of getting skin cancer. This is especially dangerous if you received numerous sunburns as a child or teenager.
  • UV radiation exposure: Even if you don’t live in a sunny or high-altitude climate or sunburn very often, simply being in the sun for a considerable amount of time increases the risk for skin cancer. This also applies to using tanning lamps and beds. Many people don’t realize that getting tan is actually the body’s manifestation of injury to the skin through excessive UV radiation.
  • Family or personal history: If you or anyone in your family has had skin cancer before, you are more likely to develop the disease.
  • Weakened immune system: People with HIV/AIDS, leukemia or any other condition where their immune system is weakened are more likely to develop this disease.
  • Age: Although skin cancer can occur at any age, the risk for this disease increases with age.
  • Skin lesions: If you have skin lesions they could be precancerous and an indicator of a high risk for skin cancer.


Skin cancer is often preventable for those who take the following steps:

  • Wear sunscreen year-round
  • Wear protective clothing when out in the sun
  • Avoid going out in the sun between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest
  • Do not use tanning beds or lamps
  • Ask whether any medications you are taking make your skin more sensitive to sunlight
  • Check your skin regularly for any abnormalities or changes, and see a doctor right away if you find anything out of the ordinary


There are several options for the treatment of skin cancer. The best treatment often depends on what type of skin cancer a patient has and how advanced their cancer is. Surgery is often utilized to remove cancer cells. There are many different types of surgical procedures, but most focus on removing abnormal growths and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure that all the cancerous cells have been removed. Some doctors may also suggest using a laser to vaporize abnormal growths on the skin.

Additionally, some types of skin cancer can be treated with radiation (high-power energy beams), photodynamic therapy (laser light and drugs), biological therapy (medications to stimulate the immune system) or chemotherapy (topical, oral or intravenous drugs) may be used to kill cancer cells, particularly when the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.


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